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Study by team of Queen’s researchers questions effectiveness of “eco-friendly” de-icers

With a need to deal with the ice and snow on roads and sidewalks through Canada’s winters, many municipalities have turned to eco-friendly alternatives to road salt.

But a recent study published by a team of researchers at Queen’s raises questions of whether those alternatives are any better for the environment or in fact worse, and additionally, how these products are being accredited as “eco-friendly”.

Road salt runoff can contaminate drinking water, endanger wildlife and increase soil erosion, and in response there has been a desire to come up with a more environmentally friendly product to use in their place that will also ensure road safety.

The Queen’s researchers, led by graduate student Troy Martin, decided to compare the impact of road salts on lake water to widely used alternatives, one an inorganic mixture of chloride salts and the second of beet extract and brine.

The study comparing traditional road salts to the two other products is believed to be the first of its kind.

The experiment involved adding the different products to 60 containers of about 200 litres of lake water, with the assumption being that the “eco-friendly” alternatives would have a lesser impact.

One of the researchers, Molecular Genetics Professor Dr. Virginia Walker, said that the experiment did not point to that conclusion at all.

“At these high concentrations, we could see that, in fact, these weren’t eco-friendly,” Walker said.

“They seem to have more impact on the communities than the traditional road salt.”

Dr. Walker, whose area of expertise is bacteria, said that the beet brine in one substance metabolized the oxygen in the water and allowed bacteria to thrive.

She says this experiment raises the question of why are these products being labeled as eco-friendly, and by what metric?

She says there’s no real regulation around labelling products as eco-friendly, and that’s resulting in consumers making purchases they wrongly believe to be helping the environment.

It’s tapping into consumers’ desire to do good, but in a misguided way.

“The ordinary consumer buying this thinks that if you say it’s eco-friendly, they think that it’s not going to have an impact on the environment,” Walker said.

“Companies are willy-nilly calling things eco-friendly and green, this and that, and there’s really not much of a regulation out there… They need to explain why this is eco-friendly.”

Further still, municipalities seem to be getting duped by the claims made by these companies in an effort to make their cities and towns greener, resulting in widespread use of “eco-friendly” products that could actually be worse for the environment.

Walker said the study’s conclusions, unfortunately, point towards traditional road salt as likely being the least harmful of the three substances.

However she says that’s not a reason to lose hope that there could be better alternatives, as while the mixture of chloride salts was worse than road salt, it wasn’t as harmful as the product with beet extract and leaves room for hope that a different mixture could potentially do the job in a less harmful way.

Dr. Shelley Arnott, Professor of Aquatic Ecology at Queen’s who supervised the experiment and others looking at impacts on zooplankton, says since finding these results they’ve had some informal discussions with groups who may turn to beet brine alternatives for ice removal to let them know that the substance appears to be much more toxic.

She says companies are probably justifying their eco-friendly claims by saying it requires less volume than traditional road salt, which she admitted is good, but the beet brine has more adverse effects that need considering.

“One of the advantages with the beet juice brine and others is that when you put it down,it kind of sticks more, so you don’t have to have as many salt applications… probably one of the eco-friendly components of it is that just less is being used,” Arnott said

“Anything we can do to reduce the amount of salt we’re using is good, but I think with the beet juice brine there’s some additional problems with it.”

Ultimately the group concluded while the sentiment behind these alternatives is to be applauded, it appears they are far from having the positive environmental impact that they intend to.

The study was published at the end of January, and has yet to be peer reviewed.

Owen Fullerton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Owen Fullerton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporterhttp://ygknews.ca
Born and raised in Whitby, Ontario, Owen has been living in Kingston for about three years after starting the band Willy Nilly. Prior to that he worked at CKLB radio in Yellowknife and completed studies in Niagara College's Broadcasting program.

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